Mental Health Awareness Week reminds managers to think about their workforce

Some 74 per cent of 1,147 lawyers surveyed were more stressed in their work last year than they had been five years ago, according to charity LawCare. Yet despite this, only 17 per cent had taken time off work because of stress over the previous year. When asked why, 65 per cent of respondents said that they would be concerned about reporting feeling stressed or anxious to their employer.

Firms often do not realise that stress is a bottom-line issue, believes LawCare’s Anna Buttimore. “Stressed lawyers cut corners, make mistakes, take sick leave and may leave the firm altogether. In addition, stress can be very detrimental to health, leading to physical and mental health issues, which could leave firms open to legal claims,” she says.

This week marks the Mental Health Foundation’s annual campaign to raise awareness of mental health and well-being. Mental Health Awareness Week’s 2014 theme is anxiety, a leading cause of mental ill-health.

Anxiety can manifest itself in a number of ways and varies from person to person. It can be an extremely debilitating condition and lead to a decreased quality of life. It may also result in further physical and psychological disorders, such as ulcers, eating disorders and panic attacks. Those affected often find it difficult to seek help, fearing they will be labelled as weak, a failure or damaged goods by their employer, colleagues and even their loved ones.

Given the pressures of the legal profession, solicitors may feel even more hesitant to seek help for anxiety or stress-related disorders. So a number of law firms have introduced programmes to help staff deal with work-related stress.

Herbert Smith launched an internal training programme in 2009 to help its staff recognise the symptoms of stress and deal with mental illness.

Hogan Lovells has an on-site counselling service as part of a wider well-being awareness review, which opened after the firm pledged to examine its policies and procedures around workplace stress and mental health, following (but not related to) the death of IP partner David Latham.

Meanwhile, Clifford Chance has recently started trialling a work-related stress programme for senior associates. The pilot initiative extends the trainee psychological well-being scheme, which the firm launched last August, to more employees.

Buttimore says: “We have been encouraging firms to take the issue of stress seriously for many years, and we welcome these schemes as a real step in the right direction.

“However, those who don’t work at firms with this support in place should know that LawCare’s free and confidential helpline service is available to them, as it is to all those employed within the legal profession in the UK and Ireland.”

About 40 per cent of sick days are attributed to stress, anxiety or depression every year in the UK. The Health Service Executive (HSE) says between 2011 and 2012, this equated to 428,000 days of absence, at a cost of over £26bn to the economy.

For the legal industry, anxiety and depression are big problems and will be costing firms time, money and resource. Lawyers – at all stages of their careers – need advice and support on mental health.

Help is available to those in the greatest need, such as through LawCare and the Mental Health Foundation. But shouldn’t all firms be more aware and take practical steps to assure the well-being of their most important commodity: their staff? Perhaps Mental Health Awareness Week will provide a wake-up call to both employees and senior management.

“We would encourage firms to be aware of this, to have good supportive HR structures in place, and to not allow a bullying culture to develop,” adds Buttimore.

‘A chink of light’

How can lawyers know when they need to address their anxiety, what steps they should take and what help is available? SJ spoke to one solicitor, who wished to remain anonymous, about their experiences of coping with anxiety and how their firm helped them through a particularly difficult period

“I had a really busy year. One day at work, I felt like I was on the edge of an abyss. I spoke to a partner and explained where I was – very frankly and honestly. I was told, without any reservation, to go home and see a doctor and do what I needed to do.“I saw a doctor the next day. He made a preliminary diagnosis, was supportive and wanted to sign me off for a week. I really did not like the thought of being signed off so I was hesitant. He told me to speak to work and my family and call him on Monday morning.

“I updated work and the team leader then asked to visit me at home that afternoon. Bearing in mind their role in a big team in a national corporate law firm, this was a pretty surprising – and demonstrative – step.

“They took most of their afternoon talking to me, pretty much purely to make sure I knew I was valued and all they wanted was for me to get well.

“We talked it through – I was again frank – and I was told to take the week signed off that the doctor had advised. I pointed out I’d be off, and then back for a week before I was off again on a pre-booked holiday, which wouldn’t be ideal.

“The immediate response was that I could be off the next three weeks and we could review after that. That a partner had taken the time to come to my house, talk to me on a one-to-one basis with no agenda, preconceptions or assumptions had a huge impact on my own view of the situation. It was a chink of light.

“It was the hardest few weeks of my life. Being frank with family, friends and work was key. There was no pressure at all from work and only support. I was even offered more time off if I needed it before returning. It was tempting but I wanted to get back into it.

“When I returned I discussed what adjustments I would need. These were all very minor but done without a fuss. I was given time to work around cognitive behaviour therapy and medical appointments. The message was clear: get well with our support.

“Since then it’s been a big relief both at work and at home as I don’t have it in the shadows. I can talk about it. At work, it’s all there for partners to see and to realise it isn’t something which needs to hinder me. I’ve also learnt that a significant number of colleagues face, and manage to different degrees, their own mental health demons.

“Where am I now? On constant medication but still me and probably doing even better at work now.”

This article was first published in the Solicitors Journal on 12 May 2014 and is reproduced with kind permission.